Pandan: the Perfume of Penang

Let me start the new year with a journey and take you to George Town. Located on the Malaysian island of Penang, the city was established in the 18th century by the British East India Company. The population of George Town is diverse, a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian communities, each contributing its own traditions to Penang’s cosmopolitan blend. One of the most distinctive layers is formed by the Peranakans. The descendants of the Chinese who arrived starting from the 15th century and intermarried with the locals, the Peranakans blend Chinese, Malay and European customs. Their clothing, art and music are distinctive, but even more striking is their cuisine: Peranakan, or Nyonya, food is one of George Town’s main attractions.

I traveled around Malaysia, exploring its scented and culinary traditions, but I kept returning to Penang. It drew me with its diversity, its history, and above all, its food. Penang’s food and scents are the topics of my recent FT column, Pandan: the Perfume of Penang. I explore the most characteristic of all scents in Peranakan cuisine, pandan.

Although the foods I tried in Penang were varied – I’ve written previously about the sheer variety of specialities on offer across its different neighbourhoods – one leitmotif during my explorations was the scent of pandan leaves. The Peranakans mix shredded pandan with rose petals, jasmine and perfume oil to create a home fragrance, but most often, the leaves of this tropical plant are used in their cuisine. Although pandan tends to be described as the vanilla of Asia for its ubiquity in desserts, its fragrance isn’t sweet. When raw, pandan smells green and nutty, but when cooked, it acquires the voluptuous, toasted perfume of basmati rice. To continue reading, please click here.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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24 Comments

  • gunmetal24: I love pandan 💚💚💚
    When I was young, kids used to be fed pandan sponge cake. There’s nothing quite like it, the pandan flavour is so distinctive. Of course children were attracted to the green colour ( which can range from green pastel to med green). At the moment my favourite dish is BBQ chicken wrapped in pandan leaves. Savoury with a hint of sweetness. Yum 😋 January 1, 2019 at 9:13am Reply

    • Victoria: I also love chicken grilled in pandan leaves. It imparts such a delicious flavor. You could say that I’m addicted to this scent, and I’m still looking for a perfume of a pandan sponge cake with kaya. January 1, 2019 at 11:45pm Reply

  • Tara C: I’ve only ever tasted it used as an ice cream flavouring, at a local Vietnamese ice cream shop. Fresh and sweet (of course sugar has been added). January 1, 2019 at 9:17am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s interesting, because if you add sugar, 5)3 flavor and scent become sweet, but in the savory context, they also have a pleasing sweetness that balances out the spice. January 1, 2019 at 11:47pm Reply

  • Fleurycat: I was so excited to see this topic! Pandan, my new love! Recently in Thailand and Cambodia, the identification of Pandan leaf as an ingredient solved a mystery that has haunted me for years. A flavor which makes so many Thai and other South Asian dishes distinctive, until recently it remained unidentifiable (to me). Indeed, it can have a wonderfully toasted quality like Basmati rice, but also a sweet vanilla or floral perfume quality. But I never knew what it was until I was served tea made with Pandan leaf and Lemon grass and the resulting beverage was astonishing. The pandan leaf countered the bright tart citrus flavor with a toasty, sweet warmth. In a cooking class I learned of its use in many dishes. In curry pastes it leant a wonderful complexity. In sticky rice and mango it was distinctive in color as well as fragrance, and I look forward to exploring it more! Another wonderful discovery was Bael fruit tea, made from the toasted dried fruit. This also posesssed a homey, soothing toasted flavor that reminds me slightly of basmati rice, but which I would never associate with a citrus.
    Thank you for your wonderful writing, Victoria. It is always such a pleasure.
    I would love to know more about Pandan leaf, especially as a fragrance. Sadly, Ormonde Jayne fragrances have never worked for me, as they seem to disappear on my skin, unlike no other perfume. Especially tragic, as I am so drawn to the notes. January 1, 2019 at 12:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: Bael fruit tea is another one of my obsessions. The fruit naturally contains coumarin, so you get a delicious almond-like note. And it’s also good for you!

      Thank you, I’m happy that you’ve enjoyed my article. January 1, 2019 at 11:49pm Reply

  • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria,

    Happy New Year! (Let’s hope it’s a good one…)

    That was an interesting article, and it made me feel hungry and eager to sample both pandan and Champaca. There are many Malaysian restaurants here in Brisbane, however the perfume could be harder to find, so I might order a sample online.

    To veer off topic… As I was shopping for fragrances during the recent sales, I noticed that two perfume houses will reach major milestones NEXT year – in 2020. Penhaligon’s will turn 150, and Yardley will turn 250! Victoria, you are probably aware of this, but I thought others might be interested to know. (Apologies if it has been mentioned already; I have been unwell and have months of BdJ catch-up reading to do.) I wonder what the companies will do to celebrate… Perhaps they’ll release limited editions of favourites, or maybe even a new fragrance or two.

    I would like to wish all the Bois de Jasmin writers and readers a healthy and happy 2019. January 1, 2019 at 5:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: Happy New Year to you too! I hope that it will be a wonderful one.
      Thank you for mentioning the anniversaries. I imagine that the brands will be releasing special editions, and I will make sure to write more reviews of their perfumes. January 1, 2019 at 11:51pm Reply

    • Aurora: Tourmaline: Best wishes for the New Year, and I hope it will be a healthy one for you.

      Interesting about the anniversaries, I love Yardley Iris which is now discontinued, I think. January 6, 2019 at 4:59am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Aurora,

        Belated thanks for your good wishes; much appreciated.

        I had a look on eBay and saw that there were several bottles of Yardley’s Iris available. Of course, the quality is anyone’s guess.

        Hope this helps.

        With kind regards,
        Tourmaline March 15, 2019 at 3:03am Reply

  • Amber: Auphorie makes Eau de Nyonya, to capture both Tapai Pulut and Pandan Leaf. January 2, 2019 at 1:04am Reply

    • Victoria: They do! I wanted to mention it, but they seem to launched it as a limited edition and it’s out of stock and on a waiting list. January 2, 2019 at 1:09am Reply

  • Janine Yasovant MPA.: Happy New year 2019 Victoria ,

    I went to Penang , Malaysia from my journey: Tennis competition from PSU , to Penang and George town..followed with my sweet honey moon ..:)

    Love your writing, and in love Bois de Jasmin. !! January 2, 2019 at 2:06am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve been to Penang a few times already and I love George Town. There are so many foods to try, and the atmosphere of the place is very nice. I can imagine what a nice journey you made. January 2, 2019 at 5:07am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Etat Libre d’Orange has a perfume called „Fils de Dieu Du Riz et Des Agrumes“, delicious basmati rice, jasmine, cardamom, coconut fantasy. Is this the much coveted pandan taste/scent? January 3, 2019 at 11:45am Reply

    • Victoria: The basmati note is the closest you can come to pandan. I also should have mentioned this perfume. January 3, 2019 at 7:22pm Reply

    • Silvermoon: As I read the article, I thought Fils de Dieu might fit the description. I have never consciously smelt pandan, so will look out for it. I have some Champaca from OJ’s discovery set so will check it out. I guess the unknown element in its smell will now be identified!

      Also wanted to say that Fils de Dieu is probably my favourite ELdO perfume.

      Happy New Year to all! January 4, 2019 at 4:51am Reply

      • Victoria: Mine too! It’s such an unusual, yet highly wearable perfume.

        Happy New Year to you too! January 5, 2019 at 1:16am Reply

  • Aurora: Best wishes for the New Year, Victoria and you start it well with this exotic article about pandan, it’s also the first time I come across it. I notice that in the bowl, pandan is dried, is it used dried as well as fresh? January 6, 2019 at 5:05am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s fresh, but as it sits, it dries out. It’s then replaced the next day or whenever its scent weakens. January 6, 2019 at 10:29am Reply

  • Carine: I love the smell of rice cooking. One perfume that makes me think of this smell is Kenzo Amour. What does everyone think of it? January 9, 2019 at 12:35am Reply

    • Victoria: I like KenzoAmour and its flanker Indian Holi. A soft, delicate composition–and with a good sillage. January 10, 2019 at 4:16am Reply

  • Ninon: Thank you for this–I also grew up with all kinds of pandan-scented treats. I therefore had high hopes for Eau de Nyonya, but it didn’t quite capture it for me. January 11, 2019 at 11:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m on the fence about it too. January 14, 2019 at 4:38am Reply

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